The Blurb On The Back:
It’s always just been Bonnie and Granda, living off the land, keeping to themselves and out of trouble. Until one day, Bonnie goes scavenging on the beach and finds a battered rowing boat, and a bare-footed boy. He’s cold, hungry and in need of shelter. Bonnie knows it’s a crime to help this stranger boy, but she can’t leave him for the border guards to find.
The longer she cares for this boy, who has travelled across oceans for a new beginning, the more Bonnie longs for her own freedom. Perhaps it’s time to escape the life she’s always known, to move out of the darkness and set sail for the house of light …
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s the future. Climate change, disease and war has changed the world as we know it.
13-year-old Bonnie Penn lives with her granddad in a small coastal village. Bonnie’s mother left in a boat for a better life overseas when Bonnie was just two and Bonnie doesn’t remember her. Nowadays the Border Guards stop people from trying to leave and anyone who arrives in the country is taken away and locked up.
The pair live a hand-to-mouth existence, eating the eggs and vegetables they grow in their garden and trading and using whatever they find washed up on the beach. One day Bonnie finds a row boat on the beach and thinks that this could finally be an opportunity to leave. But the boat already belongs to someone – a boy who calls himself Ish, who is himself in search of a better life having escaped his war-torn country and who is nursing an injured leg. Bonnie decides to hide Ish from the authorities and help him to get better, even though doing so risks bringing the authorities down on her and Granda – especially as Bonnie has been playing truant from school.
As the authorities become more restrictive and life becomes harder, Bonnie realises that she cannot stay in the place she’s always called home. But how can she leave her Granda, and where can she and Ish go?
Julia Green’s literary dystopian novel for children aged 9+ is a delicately written, lyrical and thoughtful affair about the desperation, fear and hope that drives you to leave everything you’ve known. The world building is subtle and clever, the relationship between Bonnie and Granda heartbreaking and Bonnie is a protagonist who it’s easy to empathise with although I thought the ending was a little too pat.
For such a short book there’s a surprising amount going on within this novel. Green’s writing is delicate and lyrical as she carefully constructs the different elements of this bleak future where education is reduced to rote learning and political propaganda, people struggle to survive on the limited food available and everyone is afraid of getting sick now that antibiotics are no longer around to help cure you. The Border Guards and authorities are a constant threat and then there are the sinister shooting parties from the richer estates, which kill game for the sake of it rather than to eat but also aren’t above hunting other, more human prey.
The relationship between Bonnie and Granda forms the heart of the book and Green does a great job of showing the love that exists between them and which ties them together. Particularly good is the impact of Bonnie’s absent mother and how that hole has affected both of them. I liked how Granda is shown as having been too scared to make an escape with his daughter and who has regrets about it and I could well believe in his reluctance to say much to Bonnie about who her mother was and why she left.
Likewise the cautious friendship that grows between Bonnie and Ish is well done with Bonnie sympathetic to the suffering he’s clearly undergone and Green hinting at the awful things he saw and experienced during his nameless country’s war. I did wonder though whether a boy as small as Ish could really row his boat across the sea (which becomes a bigger deal at the end of the novel) and there is an element of wish fulfilment in his success there. That said, Green does a good job of showing that those who wish to escape are not alone and that a network of sorts exists to support them – even if Bonnie and Ish stumble upon it by accident and the portrayal of the characters is such that you do root for them to succeed.
There’s a lot of sadness in the book, which I won’t spoil but I admired how Green handles it such that it never seems exploitative or purely a plot point. The only other criticism that I’d make of the book is that I never understood why Bonnie didn’t have any real friends until Ish arrives – Green does well at showing how a creative, curious girl such as her would feel stifled by school but the lack of interaction between her and anyone else her own age did seem a little artificial.
The book does make you think about refugees and immigration in a different light and Green does well at showing how difficult these decisions are without ever coming across as preaching about the subject. Instead, readers are left to draw their own conclusions about Bonnie and Ish’s circumstances in a way that’s very compassionate and I hope that it makes the target audience think hard about the subject.
All in all, this is a strong book about a difficult topic and I look forward to reading what Green writes next.
THE HOUSE OF LIGHT was released in the United Kingdom on 6th June 2019. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.